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Inequality and Exploitation at Work in the Time of COVID-19

Kate Farhall

August 6, 2020

Since COVID-19 began to devastate labour markets, consistent reports have emerged highlighting how the pandemic has deepened inequalities related to work and employment.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Crises often place greater pressure on those who are the most vulnerable, and those whose lives are already precarious tend to be the first to fall—or to be pushed. Crises also open up increased opportunities and motivation for the exploitation of workers. This may arise out of a desire for employers to get the most out of dwindling resources—including ‘human resources’. Alternatively, employers may have an increased ability to draw on the goodwill of workers to ‘pull together’ for the organisation, or even the greater good, without fair compensation or remuneration.

In recent weeks in Victoria, the ways in which insecure work and precarious workers may be particularly vulnerable to spreading COVID-19 has been revealed. This demonstrates how those with the least financial and social capital are often least able to refuse requests from employers.

The pandemic, then, is both a lens with which to expose pre-existing inequalities, but also an opportunity for major change. Research frequently identifies times of industrial uncertainty and transition as times when the prevailing social and economic arrangements can be significantly re-ordered.

However, moving toward greater equality for workers, whether marginalised along gender, racial, class-based or other lines, requires active planning. Such improvements do not follow automatically from broader initiatives to rebuild. In fact, gaps between workers can be amplified by rebuilding processes. This feature can be seen in the way the Australian government has sought to stimulate the economy and support job growth in recent months. While I focus on gender here, this is also true for other marginalised populations and especially for those who live at the intersections, such as migrant women.

Current government approaches signal an unequal valuing of labour. Men’s labour, most notably in the highly masculinised construction sector through ‘Homebuilder’, has been prioritised. This is a sector where female representation has actually declined over the past decade and one that saw the largest increase in the gender pay gap in Australia between November 2018 and 2019. The European Institute for Gender Equality notes that this kind of gender-blind economic policy making can actually exacerbate gender gaps, by investing primarily in—and therefore elevating—heavily masculinised industries.

Conversely, critical areas of feminised labour, such as disability support and childcare, have faced significant challenges during the pandemic, yet garnered limited government assistance.

Disability support is an area of work that is crucial to provide dignity and rights to a significant portion of the Australian population. Yet in this sector, a lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment has combined with uncertainty and precarity to increase worker vulnerability and exploitation within the sector. A recent survey and report from UNSW (unpacked in depth by my colleague Wendy Taylor previously on this blog) have underscored the ways in which these factors have combined to increase stress and risk for undervalued workers in the sector. Workers who are primarily womenoften migrant or racialised women—on low-wage, casual and precarious contracts.

The childcare sector has also been hit hard by the pandemic. While the government’s $1.6 billion relief package and fee-waiver in April staved off a sector collapse, its more recent announcement of a ‘snap back’ approach is likely to have damaging impacts on its feminised workforce, as well as women’s labour more broadly. With the sector the first to lose the JobKeeper wage subsidy towards the end of July, alongside a return to pre-COVID fee arrangements for parents, which are predicted to precipitate a slump in enrolments, the sector is facing decimation. For families whose incomes have been hit hard by the pandemic and who cannot afford a return to fees, childcare may not longer be an option. The number of days a week they access childcare may have to be reduced. As a result, this predominantly female workforce is likely to face significant job-losses. Further, an increase in informal childcare arrangements is also anticipated—and also hugely gendered. Women’s labour force participation is thus predicted to drop, as a result the increased childcare burden they will face.

In Victoria specifically, there is still confusion about how the Stage 4 restrictions will impact on the sector—and on families. The new restrictions in force only allow the children of permitted workers to remain in childcare, pushing childcare back into the informal sector and likely onto women. Moreover, despite providing some support to the sector, the Federal government has declined to reinstate JobKeeper, leaving future income for sector workers uncertain.

Uncertain working conditions in these sectors and uncertain futures for their workers have gendered societal consequences, and do nothing to strengthen the social bedrock for a post-pandemic recovery. Beyond the immediately impacted workers, documented falls in women’s participation in public life and knowledge work during the pandemic—such as a reduction in women submitting academic papers or running for local council—suggest longer-term impacts on gender inequality in Australia.

Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate work-related inequalities and increase the possibility for the exploitation of workers, particularly those with limited power. If Australia does not address these inequalities with effective policy responses, the country is likely to come out of this pandemic less equal, and more polarised.

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